Despite its common association with China and the former Soviet Union, Marxist theories have been influential in the United States as well as behind the "red curtain." For instance, when the Gilded Age lost its glimmer at the turn of the 20th century, many Americans began to warm up to the ideas influenced by Karl Marx, such as workers uniting and forming trade unions. Also, when the stock market crashed in 1929, it took a decade of "New Deal" reform policies to keep Americans feeling secure. These practices, including social security, pensions, paid holidays, and scholarships, had their basis with Marx (Rius 15). But when the Soviet Union's downfall occured c. 1991 and United States became the world's dominant superpower, it's ironic that it was around that time when American policy-makers criticized such policies as having become too costly. If the U.S. government was willing to allocate funds for such policies during a Great Depression, why not during a recession, as was the case at that time? Perhaps such elitist measures stand to reason, however, when one considers the further irony that many Americans regard Marxism as a threat to this day. It's ironic because we Americans sustain such a notion at a moment when we're becoming more susceptible to authoritarian pressures being established in our own country.
For this reason, Marxism should be recognized for what I'll demonstrate it here as being: an advancement upon the same theories that influenced the molding of our own government over 200 years ago: the social contract theories of Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau. However, whereas our representative government is merely the agglomeration of various extracts from each of these theories, I will show here how Marxist doctrines (which originated after our country has been formed) provide the grand total of all these theories once their values have been determined consecutively. The bases of these theories involve the liberalist function of insuring citizenry with personal liberties (Lawson 554). So, with this in mind, each theory (including Marx) will be discussed here accordingly, and then applied to its place in human history.
First of all, a social contract is "an agreement that creates a state and its government" (Coulter 30) when "a union of many individuals form some common end which they all share" (Kant 42). The notion that individuals on the whole can effect the manner of how a state conducted its government, rather than presuming such rules to be preordained by God, was new to the times from which it derived. Historically, the origins of individual rights arose from the demise of the hierarchal nature of feudalism and the beginning of the Reformation.
The Reformation was the result of such Lutheran-inspired beliefs as the possibility of individuals possessing the means to establish a relationship with God without the need of an intermediary. This "liberty" inspired the notion that the citizenry was just as capable of being endowed with God's grace as much as their ruler's were. It also inspired the recognition of inalienable rights--specifically, the right to live as well as any other. With these expectations being realized, the general public began to expect certain requirements of the sovereignty to maintain and protect these rights as well. Social contract theories, a product of such times, should therefore be recognized as theories devised to best establish a government to correspond with the rights of the individual.
Thomas Hobbes (b. England, 1588-1679), who lived at the tail-end of this interval of time, was the first to originate the term "social contract". He used it as a basis "to justify the claim to absolute rule of King Charles I of Great Britain and also to describe the nature of monarchy" (Coulter 30). Although his intention hardly sounds consistent with the approaches of social contract as defined above, Hobbes's contract differed from the ones that followed in that his contract was one agreed "among individuals--not (between) individuals and the sovereignty" (Ingersoll 29). In Hobbes's contract, the people contend that "one individual" should be "selected to rule over the others" and that they, the people, should "agree to obey the ruler in all cases." In turn, "the ruler owed the people the requirement to rule" of resolving "conflicts for the people through law and through force, if necessary" (Coulter 30).
Hobbes's interpretation of the "state of nature", as he called it, was bleak. In it, because of man's tendency toward self-interest, he imagined life to be "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short" (Hobbes 136). He interpreted this result to be caused by equality in the sense that all men "are capable of killing each other" (Ingersoll 28). Therefore, due to the possibility of conflicting interests between men, without a "common power" (a leader) to acquire "the strength and means of them all" to maintain the "peace and common defence" of all (Hobbes 156), Hobbes concluded that "the condition of Man" will be "a condition of War" (Ibid. 192). As such, fear could be assumed to be the motivational force behind the contract (Coulter 31).
In Hobbes's system, "the part of the people ends completely with the first choice of sovereign" (Russell 552). The leadership (monarchy), from that point on, will be self-perpetuating and will act as an objective arbitrator over the affairs of man and execute the laws accordingly. Although the people "give up and transfer" most "natural rights," including property, one right remains in their power: "the right to self-preservation. Because this was the factor that originally led them to create a contract, it would make no sense (for them) to give up this right" (Ingersoll 29). Accordingly, "subjects (retain) the right of self-defence, even against monarchs" (Russell 553).
Despite his dim view of human nature, Hobbes is still somewhat highly regarded in the individual-driven, liberal tradition. Although he recommended stringent limitations on personal liberties "in the need of self-preservation", he may be best remembered for being the first major political theorist to acknowledge humans as being "naturally free, independent, and equal" (Ingersoll 51).
John Locke (b. England, 1632-1704) is the second (in chronological order) among those considered to be social contract theorists. His Second Treatise listed his agenda for such a contract. It was intended to defend and somewhat explain "how a king of Great Britain (Charles I) was deposed during the Glorious Revolution of 1688" (Coulter 31), but it was also written to refute the theories presented by Hobbes (Kirk viii). Contrary to his predecessor, Locke believed that government should be "the product of (a) free contract" managed by "governors of (the) people (who) hold their authority only in trust, and that when such trust is violated, a people can rightfully exercise their strength--though only under the greatest provocation--to undo tyranny" (Kirk viii). This point of view differs from Hobbes in that "greatest provocation" does not necessarily imply only protecting one's preservation, but liberty and the right to acquire property, as well. Locke believed that man's natural rights rested on the allowance to maintain such criteria.
In his effort to refute Hobbes, Locke utilizes his adversary's method of reasoning and comes up with his own idea of the "state of nature". Locke's perception of such a state was less severe than Hobbes's as it consisted of rational people also. Individuals "realized the need for order, law, predictability, and ... power under some organized structure" more out of practicality than out of fear (Coulter 31). His conclusion was that "society (should be) the product of a voluntary contract among men who were equal in a state of nature, but who have established a community, held together by political government, in order to better secure their natural rights (i.e. of life, liberty, and property)" (Kirk viii). In other words, the people agreed to obey the laws, pay their taxes, etc. under the condition that the monarch lived up to his part of the agreement as well, that of protecting the citizenry's natural rights.
Locke primarily believed that "the reason why men enter into society is the preservation of property" (Locke 127) and, consequently, the bulk of his theory is based on protecting that right. Advancing the right of property beyond the rights of life and liberty, however, is where lies the major inconsistency with this theory in regards to personal liberties. Locke begins on the premise that God has "given the earth to mankind in common" (Locke 21) and that "every man should have as much (property) as he could make use of" (Locke 29). He also adds that man "has no right further than (what) his use call(s) for ... and may serve to afford him conveniences of life" (Locke 30). Therefore, if a man appropriated products from the land that later "perished in his possession without their due use, ... he offended against the common law of nature, and was liable to be punished; he invaded his neighbor's share" (Locke 30). Locke added this provision to prevent the self-interest of others from trespassing on another person's entitlement.
The inconsistency arises when Locke later eases this provision by permitting money as a means to access more land than what one required. He also approved of buying another person's labor as a means of maintaining the extra land. Philosopher Immanuel Kant later saw the dilemma such an allowance may cause if land became scarce and "numerous people who might otherwise have acquired personal property (their natural right)" may be "reduced to serving someone else in order to live" (Kant 46). By implication, Locke appears to value money more than he does labor--since by selling one's labor, one also sells one's right to the land. Such a provision suggests that man's natural right may no longer apply when the price is right. In essence, money becomes worth more than rights.
Locke is considered the "founder of liberal democratic thought" (Ingersoll 51) and, as such, it should be noted that at the time Locke lived, much land was still available that was unclaimed. Perhaps in this light, Locke's theory did, in fact, offer the greatest amount of freedom. After all, if available to all, money could be considered as a means of only acquiring more freedom. But, as the world has since become a land of dwindling resources, it may now appear that perhaps Hobbes was more correct in implying that liberty was better protected by limiting one's personal freedom. Obviously, Locke's and Hobbes's ideas needed to be expanded upon in order to meet the demands of a changing world.
Rousseau is the next of the contract theorists and he borrows from Locke the idea of "submission to the majority" (Kirk x) and then we'll add another name to the list of theorists by including among them Marx who (after economist Ricardo) "converted Locke's observation that the value of property comes from the labor [and] expanded upon it to the socialist theory of value" (Kirk xi).
Jean-Jacques Rousseau (b. France, 1712-78) is the last of the social contract theorists to devise such a plan prior to the first time a social contract was practiced on a national level. This first was the Articles of Confederation and it was influenced both by Locke's theory on inalienable rights (already borrowed by Jefferson and altered to "life, liberty, and happiness" for his Declaration of Independence) as well as the idea first proposed by Rousseau of a government based solely on the consent of the people. The theory of formulating a government minus a king provides the basis for Rousseau's book _The Social Contract_ (1750). In this book, Rousseau places the power of legislation among the people who by consensus establishes the executive order of the general will. In other words, "the sovereign of Rousseau's contracted state (is) not a person (a monarch) but an idea--the common consensus of the population on any issue" (Coulter 32).
Needless to say, Rousseau had greater faith in human nature than his predecessors. In his interpretation of the "state of nature" (established earlier in another work, _Discourse on the Origin of Inequality_), Rousseau goes back even further in time where he describes humans as "noble savages" living according to their need, who borrowed from nature in just proportion, and behaved decently. Obviously, Rousseau considered humans to be generally good-natured. He believed it wasn't until people began to clamor for possessions and formed communities did the problems of ethics arise. As Rousseau states in his Discourse:
[The first person who, having fenced off a plot of ground, took it into his head to say "this is mine" and found people simple enough to believe this, was the true founder of civil society. What crimes, wars, murders, what miseries and horrors would the human race have been spared by someone who, uprooting the stakes or filling in the ditch, had shouted to his fellowmen: Beware of listening to this imposter; you are lost if you forget that the fruits belong to all and the earth to no one! (211).]
Unlike Hobbes and Locke, Rousseau "believed human to be a developing species changing over time" (Ingersoll 43). Humans were the "only species who had the potential to participate knowingly in their own evolution" (Ingersoll 43) and, therefore, created governments to protect against conflicting interests that may result in such transitions. However, Rousseau saw these early "social contracts" to form governments as fraudulent. Although they were alleged to embody the interest of justice, such contracts were created by the rich merely to protect them from the poor (Ingersoll 44). As a consequence, Rousseau perceived his era as an age where "man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains. One believes himself the master of others, and yet he is a greater slave than they" (Rousseau 7). It's interesting to note that when Rousseau decided to open what became his most famous book in this way, his intention was not to make a protest but simply to express what he imagined to be a matter of fact (Crocker xiv).
Rousseau believed that "one of the most important functions of government (is) to prevent extreme inequality of fortune" (Rousseau 271). Accordingly, "no citizen shall ever be wealthy enough to buy another, and none poor enough to be forced to sell himself" (Ibid. 85). Rousseau "does not demand economic equality, but only a narrowing of the gap" (Crocker xvii). He argued that "everyone in society needed to own a limited amount of property" since "small ownership gave every individual an alternative to working for someone else" (Ingersoll 45).
Although it's true that this method could be perceived as a means of preventing what Marx later describes as a cause for "alienation", perhaps it's at this juncture, too, which Rousseau differs most significantly from our next theorist. Marxist theories originate from the same causes that motivated Rousseau's contract, it's only in putting such theories into practice will the two men differ. For instance, Rousseau may have been "the first of all modern political theorists to understand alienation" (Ingersoll 44), but Rousseau devised alienation as a duty of the citizen to transmit one's will to the interests of the state (the general will), whereas Marx saw alienation as a reason to alter the manner in which a government is run.
Contrary to what his views on human nature suggests, Rousseau merely became one more theorist who believed that property is the "most sacred" of all rights for a citizen (Ingersoll 45). He maintained that human nature has changed irreversibly due to possessions and, like Hobbes, he believed a state should "completely terminate the state of nature" (Crocker xv). Consequently, it becomes the duty of the state (which is the consensus of the majority will) to be relied upon to assure that all interests conform to that of its sovereignty. Whenever an "individual will" runs contrary to that of the state, the state is required to "force" that citizen "to be free" (Rousseau 22). Rousseau hopes to avoid such a necessity, however, by introducing "legislators" whose function is not to make laws (that right belongs to the general will) but to indoctrinate the public into accepting that will once it's been approved of (more like an executor [who enforces law] or, perhaps, a dictator).
It's important to note that _The Social Contract_ was "written as a theoretical work, not as a practical program" (Crocker xxiv). Since the decision of the general will is even unknown to Rousseau (as it's merely hypothetical), he would hardly suggest definite means of how to carry out such an agenda. Therefore, Rousseau is more vague than the other theorists discussed. Contemporary philosopher Bertrand Russell compares _The Social Contract_ with the Bible in that as "it was not carefully read" it was "less understood by many of its disciples. It reintroduced the habit of metaphysical abstractions among the theorists of democracy, and by its doctrine of the general will it made possible the mystical identification of a leader with his people" (Russell 700).
However, an earlier philosopher, Kant, devised a means of measuring whether a practice claimed to be made according to a general will might actually be legitimate. The method is this: "If the law is such that a whole people could not possibly agree with it (for example, if it stated that a certain class of "subjects" must be privileged as a hereditary "ruling class"), it is unjust, but if it is at least possible that a people (as a whole) could agree to it, it is our duty to consider the law as just" (Kant 46). Had Rousseau added that measure to his Social Contract, at least it would've discredited fascist claims of being derivatives of the general will--as the dictatorships of Russia (Stalin) and Germany (Hitler) had done. But the event that best defines Rousseau's influence on practical matters is the French Revolution (1788). To help us ascertain how this event rates on Kant's scale, we'll incorporate it with the theories of Karl Marx--himself a byproduct of Rousseau's initial ideas.
Karl Marx (b. Germany, 1818-83) believed that the "economic side of life, the economic goals of a society, determined all other aspects of that society" (Coulter 170). This influence involved not only in what form of government people chose but also involved matters of religion, and the structure of family and community. An adherent of the views of German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel, Marx interpreted history as a process of dialectic clashes. Unlike Hegel, however, Marx perceived these elements to be caused by conflicts in economic interests rather than political (Coulter 170).
Marx "described the evolution of history from a condition he called primitive communism" (Ingersoll 26) where "natural" humans were "gregarious, members of a community of shared values" (Ingersoll 37). The first economic clash arose between those who provided themselves sustenance by farming and those who hunted. The settlement came in the formation of an agrarian lifestyle, which permitted both means of acquiring food. Such were the nature of the clashes that followed also, of which "human society thus evolve(d) from one revolution to another, each revolution marking off a new epoch" (Mills 38).
Marx considered the French Revolution as one of these transitions: the result of a conflict between merchants and artisans (bourgeois) against the nobility and clergy (aristocracy). The victory of the bourgeoise led to its upward mobility into the ruling class beneath them, the workers (proletariat). The bourgeoise couldn't ignore the proletariat, however, since the proletariat were depended upon to run the means of production. Meanwhile, the proletariat depended on the bourgeoise for the necessities required to live. As a capitalist economy developed out of the Revolution, the bourgeoise attempted to maximize their wealth by limiting the wages of those under their employ. Marx predicted the next clash would involve the workers, tired of being exploited, demanding socialist reforms until the bourgeoise, refusing to give in any further, conspire a revolution. By that time, the workers will be so numerous (due to competition forcing numerous bourgeoise members down a notch) that, no doubt, they'd come out the victors. Marx anticipated the outcome to result in communism.
Marx advocated communism because he saw its implementation as the condition depended upon to avoid any further economic conflicts. With the workers coming out the winners, class-structures would collapse and with its demise, so would one group exploiting another cease. Resusitating the notion of a general will, Marx saw such a community as one operated among common interests. Marx provides a twist to the general will concept, however, (meeting Kant's criteria) by altering the idea of the general will becoming the state, into the state becoming the general will. What this means is that the people in common relinquish their rights to property and possessions in favor of a new right of shared ownership among all. Thus, without any more property to protect, the structure of the state itself will no longer be required.
What communism amounts to is the most accessible answer to Rousseau's ungrounded theory of the general will. As such, it may also be the most agreeable of the social contracts. With the elimination of property, the fears of protecting such a right also disappears. If the answer sounds obvious, it probably is. Marx realized this, as well. His frequent collaborator, Frederich Engels, best established a possible explanation why previous social theorists haven't reached the same conclusion. In a letter dated 1890, during the rise of the industrial revolution, Engels reasoned that even those who attend to the social sciences are "under the dominating influence of economic development" (Marx-Engels 764). He stated further:
[In philosophy, for instance, this can be most readily proved for the bourgeois period. Hobbes was the first modern materialist (*of which Marx and Engels also considered themselves to be*) but he was an absolutist in a period when absolute monarchy was at its height throughout the whole of Europe and when the fight of absolute monarchy versus the people was beginning in England. Locke, both in religion and politics, was the child of the class compromise of 1688. The English deists and their more consistent continuators, the French materialists (of which Rousseau can be counted among), were the true philosophers of the bourgeoisie, the French even of the bourgeois revolution (764).]
Despite the dialectical explanation of economics listed above and its effect on theory over time, however, perhaps the clearest warning against ending class division came from Greek philosopher Aristotle. In his notes on Politics dating back to appr. 335 b.c. (an era when slavery was seldom disputed and much practiced), Aristotle wrote that in democracies, nobility will be the cause of revolution since "they are not equal (but superior), and yet have only an equal share" (84). Even Marx agreed with this assessment on the likely cause of revolt. Despite "countries like America and England where the workers can achieve their aims by peaceful means", Marx's aim was for "workers of the world, unite!" and, accordingly, he advised "we ought to recognize that, in most countries on the Continent, it is force that must be the lever of our revolutions" (Marx-Engels 523). As long as capitalism supported the class-structure, "Marx did not expect the bourgeois class to sit back calmly and preside over its own demise" (Ingersoll 145).
Without a compact of the general will, communism requires the overthrow of the elite throughout the world (especially in our era of military strength) in order for it to exist peacefully afterward. In this respect, perhaps Marx's ideal government isn't any more realistic than that of Rousseau. As with Rousseau, numerous revolutions have been fought in its name, and yet communism has never been realized in its truest form (without a ruling class). If communism is Marx's "utopia", perhaps it's better to be kept that way ("Utopia" in Greek, means "no-place"). However, even Thomas Jefferson advised that "a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical" (Jefferson 417).
Marx recognized the bourgeoise's ability to manipulate the masses when he stated: "the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e., the class, where is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force" (Brown 184). Nowhere is this more apparent than in the United States, at present, where reality is often filtered to people over commercial television provided by networks owned by mega-corporations. Marx would label such people who dedicate themselves to the values of one's culture without reaping its benefits as those who suffer from a "false consciousness" (similar to a "false sense of security") (Brown 182). On the other hand, those who possess an accurate perception of life, a "class-consciousness", would recognize the disparity of one's position due to such personally-independent factors as one's prescribed or economic status. Of course, it can be argued, however, that since these factors are possibly out of one's control, it may be in one's best interest to remain indifferent to the injustices involved. But Marx viewed the situation as still possessing a power to change even in lieu of such degradation. In fact, Marx believed, when concentrated among many, those aware of such power would "become united, and constitute itself as a class for itself" that:
["in the course of its development, [these citizens] will substitute for the old civil society an association which will exclude classes and their antagonism, and there will be no more political power so called, since political power is precisely the official expression of antagonism in civil society" (Marx-Engels 218-19).]
In conclusion, a democracy supposedly should be "designed to facilitate a balance between competing interests, to achieve the maximum benefit for the maximum number of citizens" (Viorst 132). Currently, due to business interests, the United States is gradually drifting away from this ideal model of democracy--evidenced by the shrinking middle class (resulting from downward social mobility for many Americans) and by government pressing for closures on entitlements. As you may remember, these entitlements were credited here in this paper's introduction as helping Americans feel secure after the Great Depression. Well, the security blanket provided by the government is slowly being pulled away only to cloak the rich and expose the poor to the elements of nature by which only the strong survive.
As the human polity becomes smaller through technological and communication advances, the world is merely being withered away into one bigger and greater business interest. With that in mind, Marx's prophecy rings true: the masses become nothing more than a commodity. Such foreshadowing reveals the possibility that Marx's other prophecy may also become realized: communism as the final economic consequence throughout the world.
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